Browsing the blog archives for November, 2008

Impulse Broken

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Last weekend I actually found myself with some free time, shockingly enough. Simultaneously, I felt pretty bored with the usual gaming fare of FPS and RTS games. I wanted a fix but I didn’t know what of — So I decided to revisit Galactic Civilizations II.

Apparently, GalCivII has had not just one expansion pack, I knew about the first, but two expansion packs. It’s also had a total revamp dubbed “GalCiv 2.0,” although that only is available to those with the game already.

I was sorely tempted to buy the expansions then, but I wanted to see whether GalCivII had improved in the areas I needed it to improve in. Last time I played it I enjoyed it, but it had an unusual fatal flaw — The game was so simplified [over the ultimate 4x gaming experience, Master of Orion II] that I actually had a hard time comprehending what was going on. As it turns out, this wasn’t unusual. GalCiv II, at least at the time, had a barely-comprehensible way of handling an interstellar economy.

To explain as best I can remember: Population in GalCivII produces money based on your tax rate. You can build factories which produce Military and Social “production.” Military production builds your spacefaring fleet, Social production builds your planetary structures. You can also build research labs, which produce Research “production” for researching new technologies.

The inexplicable aspect is that, on a societal level, you assign spending to either Military, Social, or Research production. If you have a tax revenue of 1000 currency, and spend 100% of your revenue towards Military “production,” all of your planets combined will have 1000 currency of “fuel” to burn in their factories to produce ships. The problematic factor comes in when you have many colonies, most of them not dedicated to building ships, but either a balanced mix, or dedicated to Social or Research production — Continuing my example, if you have 2 colonies, one that is an industrial world filled with factories, and another world filled with universities but with a few factories on it (because you need factories to build other structures on the world anyways), your 1000 currency of Military spending will get split between the two worlds even though it is much more efficient for the factory world to get all or almost all of the spending. In short, there was a penalty on (a) expanding, (b) colonizing subpar planets, (c) building “balanced” rather than specialized planetary economies.

But I digress. I know that one of the patches that was promised when I still played GalCivII more regularly was intended to fix some of the backwardness of the economic system, at least to the extent of allowing you to partially determine what level of resources might be allocated on a colony towards particular types of production. I knew the GalCivII game fixed this one area of frustration I would have been sold on the expansion packs.

So I went looking for the latest GalCivII patch. Let me tell you, this was not easy.
I know at one point I had updated GalCivII before, and that was done through the www.galciv2.com website. But all indications from that website now point to this utility called Impulse. I know Stardock probably wants to encourage adoption of their Impulse system, but I don’t particularly care for installing a program that is going to sit as a resident on my computer just so I can install a patch. And I know in the past Stardock was pushing Stardock Central as a place to get patches, but it wasn’t required.

After about an hour I still haven’t found anything about where the patch can be downloaded, so I cave in and install Impulse. Once I had installed Impulse, the real fun begins. I start up Impulse… Could not connect to the server. So I look online. Apparently this is a common problem, and they recommend a restart. I restart my computer, no dice. Impulse still doesn’t work. I go browsing on the support forums. Fast forward to about three hours later and I tried everything and still can’t get this Impulse program to connect to a server, much less get the patch I want. This is a serious problem — If I can’t connect to Impulse, I’m basically SOL when it comes to patches for Stardock games. And because they want people to actually use Impulse, they don’t seem to offer an http solution via impulsedriven.com.

It kind of saddens me, because I have only bought one other game this year. And I think I would like to buy the GalCivII expansion packs, if not merely for my own enjoyment but for the statement that makes about supporting Stardock’s pro-customer policies. But I really can’t justify spending that money if I’m going to be tied to a system that doesn’t work for me.

Eventually I did manage to get the patch, by searching on the internet and finding a GalCivII patch available for download from a FilePlanet-style site. (And, hey, the game did fix my issues — Too bad I can’t use Impulse to purchase the expansions!)

Mirror’s Edge

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Culture, Games

Awhile back I got exposed to Mirror’s Edge, a new game by Dice/EA. There’s been a fair bit of buzz about this game, because … Well, I’m not really sure why. Basically, it’s a first-person platformer, the goal seemingly being to get from point A to point B.

The game looks pretty slick, visually. The design style of the environments is realistic, but austere in a way that a lot of games haven’t been lately. Almost all game designers are pushing a more-is-more angle, but what we’ve seen of the game breaks away from that.

I have mentioned before that Michael Blowhard is one of my favorite culture critics (perhaps culture enthusiast is a better term?), but there’s one thing I’ve never quite seen eye-to-eye with him on. One of Michael’s themes is looking at modern advertising, and examining how so much of our current design sensibilities arise from the tools used to construct those design sensibilities. For example, People with metallic skin, words with incomprehensible (parenthetical or [bracketed]) emphasis are seen as byproducts of the techno-fetishization that goes on in a design world entirely run by computers. One design theme that seems to come up again and again is the idea that the human form is infinitely malleable — Which is not to say that advertisers have a fetish for portraying humans as unformed lumps of clay, but rather that designers go out of their way to display the human form used in physically implausible ways. One of the culprits he names in this is typically video-games, which by their very nature have abstracted the form from the function.

Personally, I disagree with the conclusion that this tabula rasa physicality comes from videogames. It’s certainly invested in videogames, a medium where every woman is capable of being just as fast, strong, smart, and charming as any superhuman male protagonist. But the bigger culprit to me is movies — Movies have latched on to the concept of elastic physicality far more than videogames have, if only because videogames are typically more abstract in their presentation (due to technical limitations). In a videogame you are in control of your character, so when your on-screen avatar who happens to be an attractive 100lb female grabs a 200lb burly security guard and tosses him into a wall, it’s less about the character doing this than about you doing this by mastering the game’s mechanics. On the other hand, once special effects in movies allowed it, we increasingly began to see 100lb females beating up 200lb males, overpowering them, often multiple opponents at a time. Because movies are a medium of presentation and not of interaction, the emphasis really becomes that of showing a woman performing spectacularly outlandish things.

What really struck me about Mirror’s Edge is how it seems to be less about the player interacting with the world and more about the presentation of your avatar (Faith) interacting with the world. This is a trend toward the cinematic over the interactive. Paradoxically, it is probably Mirror’s Edge’s greatest strength to think that in moving towards a cinematic valuation of presentation it also enhances interactivity (at least on some level) by providing a more immersive sensory experience than other first-person-games.

My big problem with Mirror’s Edge is that I find it totally implausible. It is implausible not only in the way the main character is presented interacting with the environment, but the entire premise of this near-future world which follows-our-rules-but-doesn’t. Even if we can accept the implausibility of our 100lb protagonist running around, jumping 30 foot gaps, sliding down 100 feet on steel cables, dodging bullets, and shrugging everything off with a roll, what is our rationale for accepting that our supermodel protagonist would even bother risking life and limb to deliver letters? Accepting these things is accepting the premises so frequently promoted through other media that the human form is something infinitely malleable– that being a 100lb waif-thin female doesn’t stop one from being a top-notch athlete who can do superhuman stunts that would cause most people to break a wrist, ankle, or worse; that being a supermodel-class female beauty doesn’t carry social cachet and expectations that would make this sort of life-risking behavior unnecessary and pointless.

I want to point this out, because I know this game has been praised and praised for its supposedly progressive visual design, but Faith is just another supermodel in a long line of supermodel protagonists. There is nothing new or refreshing or progressive in her visual design for anyone who has anything more than a politicized interest in videogames. A tank top and pants are nothing to go nuts over. Aside from her clothing, how is Faith any different from Paris Hilton?

Even though I am inclined to believe that movies, more than videogames, are pushing an ideology of physical mutability, I think it’s inevitable that games such as Mirror’s Edge are beginning to adopt this subtext wholesale as the entire medium moves towards emulating the cinema. It really isn’t unexpected, given that very few videogames (none which I know of) actually treat the physical representation of a character as inextricable from that character’s capabilities in the game world. That seems like a shame, since to the extent that videogames survive as non-mainstream media expressions, they …

… are pure products of the the engineer and nerd culture that is completely different from, say, the culture born of marketing, social sciences and various “critical studies” that currently dominates Hollywood and print media. (Link)

Alarmist? Perhaps. But I also think that Mirror’s Edge will just not be a very good game, and that this is not entirely unseparate from the tropes it adopts and the forces that it panders to.

Epic Betrayals

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Games, Technology

As you might be aware at this point, Epic Games has released the newest iteration in their Halo-sequel game series, Gears of War. For me, Gears of War isn’t really interesting except insofar as it is a distillation of negative trends in the game industry: Poor storytelling, cinematic experience bereft of the benefits of an interactive medium, hypermasculinization and deintellectualization, and so on.

There’s also the angle in which we can look at Gears of War as a prime example of a PC-focused developer turning into a console-focused developer, and the implications of the two platforms. I am not one for the “console wars,” but I think that PC-gaming and console-gaming serve different markets, in much the same way that movies released to theaters serve a much different market than direct-to-home-video movies do.

For PC developers, the giant bugaboo-slash-boogeyman is “Piracy.” For console developers, piracy is significantly less of a problem, for both demographic and technical reasons. But console developers have their own boogeyman, and it is “Used game sales.” Here’s what Mike Capps, President of Epic Games, has to say:

“The secondary market is a huge issue in the United States. Our primary retailer makes the majority of its money off of secondary sales, and so you’re starting to see games taking proactive steps toward that by… if you buy the retail version you get the unlock code [for DownLoad-able Content, aka DLC],” he said.

While I think GameStop’s practices of buying used games for pennies on the dollar and reselling them at 1000% markup of what they paid are nigh-criminal, it is seriously wrongheaded to attack the used game market as a destructive force in gaming. My own general price guideline for a game is $50, which means that the vast majority of new console releases are outside of my price guideline. I may be willing to spend up to $50 on a game, but console games regularly retail for $60 and up. These prices can be even more punishing if you’re in a foreign country. My more regular price-point for games I am unsure about whether I will like is $30, and even for games that are a few years old it is unusual to find games at this price point.

The natural answer, I think, is to understand that gamers are not fountains of endless cash and that new games need to be competitive with the used game market (if that is what they are competing with) in order to remain a successful venture. Most people, myself included, would choose a new game over a used game if the differential was, say, $5.00. But once you move into the $10 and $20 differences in price…

So what does Capps think might be potential “final solutions” to the “used game problem”?

“I’ve talked to some developers who are saying ‘If you want to fight the final boss you go online and pay USD 20, but if you bought the retail version you got it for free’. We don’t make any money when someone rents it, and we don’t make any money when someone buys it used – way more than twice as many people played Gears than bought it.”

The animus behind this idea here is so… incredibly hateful towards fans who do anything other than pay full price, I literally don’t know what to say. I think it would be right and just for any company that contemplates creating a product that intentionally breaks if resold to be sued out of existence. This is nothing more than attempting to use technological means to make it impossible for someone to exercise their right to resell an item they own. If game developers think that existing copyright law is such a burden that sabotaging their products to eliminate the rights of their customers is valid, then perhaps it is also right for customers to simply ignore the copyrights of the developers themselves.